Glasshouse (novel)

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First edition cover
AuthorCharles Stross
Cover artistRita Frangie
CountryUnited Kingdom
GenreScience Fiction
PublisherOrbit (UK), Ace (US)
Publication date
June 2006
Media typePrint (Hardcover & Paperback)
813/.6 22
LC ClassPR6119.T79 G57 2006

Glasshouse is a science fiction novel by British author Charles Stross, first published in 2006. The novel is set in the twenty-seventh century aboard a spacecraft adrift in interstellar space. Robin, the protagonist, has recently had his memory erased. He agrees to take part in an experiment, during which he is placed inside a model of a late twentieth/early twenty-first century Euroamerican society. Robin is given a new identity and body, specifically that of a woman named "Reeve". Major themes of this novel are identity, gender determinism, self-image and conformity. Contrary to popular belief, it is not a sequel to his 2005 novel Accelerando, although Stross has stated that the two novels are not obviously incompatible.[citation needed] Glasshouse won the Prometheus Award for 2007, and was nominated for the Hugo, Campbell, and Locus Awards in 2007.[1]


Stross wrote of the book's production:

Glasshouse appeared, almost fully formed, in my head between 2:30 p.m. and 3:45 p.m. in the afternoon of 23 March 2003, while I was at the pub nattering with a friend. I held it off for all of two weeks or so, until 8 April, when the compulsion to start writing became too strong to resist, and the first draft emerged in just three weeks of obsessive 12-hour days.

— Science Fiction Weekly interview with Stross, September 2003[2]

Plot introduction[edit]

It is the 27th century, when technology has enabled humankind to inhabit the far reaches of the universe. The culture featured in the novel is based on the culture portrayed in the last chapter of Accelerando, "Survivor"[citation needed] (full chapter here). Humanity has spread throughout the galaxy using the wormhole technology copied from the alien routers, forming a plethora of societies and 'polities'.

Robin, a human male, is recovering from a memory excision process in a rehabilitation centre. Though he remembers nothing of his past life(s), he suspects that he lived through traumatic times as a participant in the series of wars that raged many years before. Suspecting that he has been targeted for assassination by persons unknown, he agrees to sign-up with a radical, isolated social experiment that will attempt to recreate the forgotten "Dark Ages", the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

On being transferred to the polity in which the program is being held, he discovers that he has been given the body of a woman, Reeve. As the experiment unfolds, she begins to suspect that all is not what it seems, and that the founders of the experiment are engaged in a very sinister conspiracy. Slowly, she realizes that her role is not as clear-cut as she originally thought, which leads her to question, and then struggle against the program.

Explanation of the novel's title[edit]

In the context of the novel, "glasshouse" refers to a military prison. The polity in which the bulk of the story takes place was formerly a high-security facility for war criminals. The term was first used to describe the glass-roofed military detention barracks based in Aldershot, UK, in the mid-19th century.

Stross also refers to the Glasshouse as a type of panopticon, a prison constructed in such a way that the guards in the center can see everything the prisoners are doing, but the prisoners can never tell if the guards are watching. Philosopher Michel Foucault used the model to represent the way humans tend to conform to and internalise societal ideals based on this kind of omnipresent gaze, an idea Stross exploits in the novel.



The polities descended from the Republic of Is do not use days, weeks, or other terrestrial dating systems other than for historical or archaeological purposes; however, the classical second has been retained as the basis of timekeeping.

Second : The time taken for light to travel 299,792,458 meters in vacuum.

Kilosecond : 16 minutes

Diurn 100 kiloseconds : 27 hours, 1 day and 3 hours

Megasecond (Cycle) 10 diurns : 11 days and 6 hours

M-year 30 megaseconds : 337 Earth days, 11 months

Gigasecond : approximately 31 Earth years

Terasecond : approximately 31,000 Earth years (half age of human species)

Petasecond : approximately 31,000,000 Earth years (half elapsed time since end of Cretaceous era)

Transport technology[edit]

T-gates : (Transporter gates). These are the ubiquitous point-to-point wormholes which link everything from polities that are light-years apart to rooms in habitats to each other. They are also used to enable one to access private storage spaces, even from clothing. Unlike the A-gates, traffic through these is instantaneous and unfiltered, though they can be fitted with firewalls at a variety of strengths.

A-gates : (Assembler gates). Nanotechnological arrays that can be used for creating all kinds of objects, goods, and substances very quickly, molecule by molecule, working from a wide series of templates. They are also used by the posthuman populace to create "backups" of themselves, redesign their physical bodies to whatever parameters they wish, long-distance travel between far-flung polities, and for medical purposes, making them, if they wish to be, virtually immortal. Military-grade versions exist which can be used to download polity-inbound traffic, analyse it for threats/contamination, reroute it to a DMZ, and then reassemble it if all is well.

Mobile Archive Suckers : Large spacecraft or mobile habitats which travel at slower-than-light speeds between the brown dwarf stars which most polities orbit. Self-contained and self-sufficient, fitted with their own A-gates, they are fuelled by plasma piped-in by T-gate from nearby stars. Generally, the ships' systems are not connected to the galactic network at large. The crews and/or passengers can, if they do not wish to experience the long subjective timescales of travel by this method, disassemble themselves in an A-gate and "sleep" throughout the journey.

Population centres[edit]

The vast majority of posthumanity lives in massive artificial cylindrical habitats, along with a few domed colonies on the planets, moons, and asteroids orbiting brown dwarf stars. These can be linked to each other by T-gates, creating a huge network of interconnected societies, known as the Republic of Is.


For a variety of reasons, posthumanity has forgotten the history of events preceding, during, and just after the singularity (the "acceleration") as it occurred back in the Solar System, from around 1950 to 2040. They refer to this period as the Dark Ages. Data-storage methods changed so rapidly that proper backups weren't made; much data was encrypted, or stored on perishable media; many individuals hailing from the period excised their memories too many times, creating a historical "bias"; and many "censorship wars" were fought, with computer viruses and worms changing or erasing what was left.

Censorship wars[edit]

A long series of these wars plagued posthumanity, starting around 300 years before the novel begins, lasting for almost a century (two centuries, according to Yourdon). Censor factions used A-gates to propagate redactive worms throughout the Republic's networks, which targeted historical data and even memories of why the wars had started in the first place. Historians and archaeologists were singled out for annihilation. These events placed a great strain on the political cohesiveness of the Republic of Is – but worse was to come.

Curious Yellow[edit]

Persons unknown created a worm of enormous destructive capability – Curious Yellow. Like previous worms it used the A-gates to spread, but it also used the people who travelled with/uploaded to them as transmission vectors. An infected A-gate would surreptitiously delete swaths of personal memory from a victim, particularly memories associated with historical knowledge of pre-Republic times. It would then force a copy of its kernel into the victim's netlink (the Cyberware which everyone uses to connect to and communicate with the gate networks) along with some bootstrap functions.

The infected victim, upon encountering a "clean" A-gate, would then feel compelled to switch the gate into debugger mode, enter a set of commands, then upload him/herself, after which the gate would execute the infected boot-loader in his/her netlink, copy it into its working set, and thus become infected in turn.

When a set amount of gates in a network became infected, they would begin communicating with each other and create privileged instruction channels which could be used by shadowy controllers with the correct authentication keys to control them remotely. They could defend themselves against attack, build and direct weapons to selected targets, and netlink to any number of T-gates.

Eventually, the republic crumbled under the pressure, converting into a series of isolated, heavily firewalled polities.

Curious Yellow is derived from a paper on worm design by Brandon Wiley: Curious Yellow: The First Coordinated Worm Design.[3]


However, there were those who fought back. A variety of militia groups formed, among them the Linebarger Cats, who specialised in esoteric strategies and psyops. They formed and acted on a plan to "repurpose" the worm, rewriting its code as an "immune system" and introducing it, slowly but surely, into the A-gates. Millions died as the worm fought back, but they eventually succeeded.

After Curious Yellow's destruction, a number of Quisling dictatorships formed, using hacked versions of the worm to spread in an attempt to form separatist dystopias, populated by brainwashed populations led by sinister "cognitive dictators". But these were mopped-up one-by-one, and the galaxy returned to a semblance of normality with the firewalled polities building "clean" A-gates to carefully re-integrate. The Invisible Republic became one of the largest new networks.

Major characters in Glasshouse[edit]

  • Robin / Reeve Brown : The main protagonist – Male rehabilitation patient / "Housewife" and librarian within the polity.
  • Kay : Robin's girlfriend.
  • Colonel-Doctor Sanni : Linebarger Cats staff-officer.
  • Colonel-Professor "Bishop" Yourdon, Major-Doctor Fiore, Doctor Hanta : Founders and controllers of the Glasshouse polity.
  • Sam Brown : Reeve's "husband" within the polity.
  • Janis : Polity librarian; Reeve's co-worker.

Major themes[edit]

Self-concept, self image, the "self", memory and the self, censorship, historicity, peer pressure, conformity, problem of other minds, redemption, gender roles, abuse of women, the nature of fascism.

Allusions/references to other works[edit]

...Of late he's changed pace and stride, but in the 1970s he was a couple of decades ahead of the rest of the field. I was so annoyed by his latest novel, Red Thunder – it's basically a Heinleinian juvenile, a good example of the type but fundamentally less impressive than the work he's capable of – that I sat down and wrote a Varleyesque short novel myself

Science Fiction Weekly interview with Stross, September 2003 ([2])

Awards and nominations[edit]

Release details[edit]

Paperback edition
Country Publisher ISBN number Cover Release date
US Ace ISBN 0-441-01403-8 Hardback June 2006
UK Orbit ISBN 1-84149-392-9 Hardback July 2006
UK Orbit ISBN 1-84149-393-7 Paperback March 2007
US Ace ISBN 0-441-01508-5 Paperback June 2007

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d "2007 Award Winners & Nominees". Worlds Without End. Retrieved 27 July 2009.
  2. ^ a b Gevers, Nick (September 2003). "Charles Stross' dense stories have made him a Singularity sensation". Science Fiction Weekly. No. 343. Archived from the original on 3 December 2003. Retrieved 2 September 2017.
  3. ^ Stross, Charles. "Crib Sheet: Glasshouse". Retrieved 13 June 2013.
  4. ^ a b "Linebarger Cats" (a reference to "Mother Hitton's Littul Kittons"); see mentioned throughout. Orbit PB, p.343/4 : "At first we live off the capital freed up by the Cats' liquidation; later we supplement it by setting up a variety of business fronts. (If you've ever heard of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, or Cordwainer Heavy Industries, that's us.)"
  5. ^ Orbit PB, p.54, "... the age of emotional machines, as one Dark Age shaman named it".
  6. ^ A minor character in the novel is named "Alice Sheldon", which was Tiptree's real name.
  7. ^ Quotes from the novel: "Welcome to the Village" ; "Be seeing you!". The cohort to which Reeve belongs is designated Number Six.
  8. ^ A "hymn" that is sung in the YFH polity's Church of the Nazarene (Orbit PB, p.182).
  9. ^ "Curious Yellow is a design study for a really scary worm: one that uses algorithms developed for peer-to-peer file sharing networks to intelligently distribute countermeasures and resist attempts to decontaminate the infected network". (Stross's blog, Fri, 25 Oct 2002, posted at 18:47).
  10. ^ From the poem:

    He took his vorpal sword in hand....
    One, two! One, two! And through and through
    The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
    He left it dead, and with its head
    He went galumphing back.

    The Vorpal blade is a weapon featured in the novel.

  11. ^ a b c He is name-checked in the novel; Orbit PB, p. 214.

    I'd been reading up on the Stanford Prison Experiment and Stanley Milgram's studies on how to make ordinary folks commit atrocities. And I got this crazy idea: what if you ran the Zimbardo prison study protocol in something not unlike Varley's Eight Worlds universe, with gender roles instead of prisoner/guard roles?

    (Stross interviewed by Asimov's Magazine, 2003).
  12. ^ Hart wrote The Tanks – A History of the Royal Tank Regiment and its Predecessors: Volumes I and II (Praeger, New York, 1959).
    During Robin/Reeve's time with the Linebarger Cats as a cyborged "tank", his callout sign was Liddellhart (Orbit PB, p.245).
  13. ^ A quote from the short story is printed at the start of the novel.
  14. ^ "Who still talks nowadays about the Armenians?" This is quoted at the start of the novel, and on p. 337 (Orbit PB). (text).

External links[edit]